Visiting the Asian Tiger

We left KL on a mid-morning train that would take us over the border and into one of Asia's most developed countries, Singapore. We travelled second class, although we had impossibly wide seats with leg room that even Mr. Vanderson couldn't complain at, and after a brief interlude with Singaporean Customs (I'd forgotten to declare the 750ml of Mongolian Vodka I've been carrying for the last two months) we left the city-state's Woodlands Train Station. Here we were met by Kathy, Kate's aunt, who'd not only kindly agreed to pick us up, but who was also letting us invade her home for the next few days. 

It won't be the last time I say it, but we're both immeasurably thankful to Kathy and Chris for being so generous and hospitable whilst we stayed with them. I know both Kate and I enjoyed our stay so much and it really was invaluable, both physically and mentally, to have a taste of home-life after living out of a backpack for so long. 

That being said, some of you might have gotten the impression from my last post that I was a little shell-shocked at being in the bright lights of a big city and had become a little disillusioned with seeing the raw, but well oiled, machinery of capitalism at work again after seeing so little of it on the trip thus far. In the face of this cultural malaise, I decided there was only one solution; something that would enrich me as a person and remind me of why I'd gone travelling in the first place - Going to a theme park!

After a great meal (with G&Ts - thanks K&C!) and a good night's sleep, we got a taxi down to Universal Studios Singapore, a slightly smaller version of the one in Florida, which is located on the small island of Sentosa (more on that later). We walked through a flawless array of trendy bars and restaurants, past the spinning globe of Universal and into a world that I've been to a few times before but that changes with every visit. 

This park, as you might expect, looks, smells and even feels like it's American counterpart but it's scale is smaller, more intimate, and a little less hyperbolic than you might find in the States. People queue politely, staff are keen to help and everybody waves as your roller coaster leaves the loading platform and claps on your return. The whole experience is flavoured by that stereotypically demure Asian charm, everybody is respectful, retiring and just there for a good time. It was quite refreshing, and made for a great day. 

As the park was quite compact, and the Jurassic Park ride was out of action, there are only a handful of killer attractions, the most notable being the Battlestar Galactica-themed double roller coaster. After picking either the Human side (a sled-style coaster with no loops or corkscrews) or the Cylons (a dangling-leg ride with plenty of loops and corkscrews), you are fired out into the humid Singapore air to chase the other coaster around a track that often makes you think you're going to clip your feet (or head) on the opposite car. I'm not sure what the Battlestar Galactica franchise has done to earn such a fun ride, but the non-existant lines and screaming Japanese schoolgirls made it hugely enjoyable and something we went on half a dozen times. 

Other worthwhile rides included a carbon-copy of the Mummy ride from the US park, a childish but cute Madagascar themed river ride and a Shrek interactive film. All fun, but I was more than a little disappointed to see that a new Transformers ride would be opening just after we left... Anyways, it was a genuinely fun day out, in that easy, thoughtless way that comes from strapping yourself in to several tonnes of metal before hurtling away at amazing speeds, and was the perfect antidote to any pretentious soul searching I might have been engaged in. 

After Universal, we explored Sentosa Island a little more. Sentosa, meaning 'peace and tranquility' in Malay as a leaflet kindly informed me, was, until recently and somewhat ironically, a heavily fortified artillery position used by the British in the second World War. Since then it has been transformed into a kind of massive theme park in its own right, full of hotels, restaurants and attractions that draw in millions of people every year. It's quite an odd place, but fun nonetheless, and we walked past a 37m high merlion (Singapore's half lion, half fish mascot), a cable car and a sky needle before reaching Sentosa's two kilometres of artificial beach. Whilst the sand is white, the beach is lined with bars and palm trees provide plenty of dappled shade, the experience is marred somewhat by the tens of massive shipping vessels plowing their way in to and out of Singapore Harbour, close enough to make the water something I wouldn't risk dipping my toe in (although many were) for fear of having to be dragged out and scrubbed down with a toothbrush like an albatross caught in an oil slick. 

We wandered on, past an awesome collection of standing-wave machines (I have some great footage of a guy trying to master the surf), an aquarium and even the restored Fort Siloso, still maintained and exhibited as it would have been during the British occupation. We saw animals too, macaques and peacocks, turtles and lizards, before turning around and climbing to the top of Sentosa's hill and looking out over some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. 

We left the island via the monorail, which helpfully dropped us right in th middle of a massive shopping mall. From there we caught a taxi back o out adoptive home and had yet more G&Ts and a wonderful home cooked dinner - only our second since leaving the UK!

It's been a really great day, so I'll leave you on a high. 

G'night all. 


Truly Asia

The title of this blog is taken from the Malaysian Tourist Board's slogan for Malaysia - a woman sings 'Malllaaaaysia.... Truuuuly Aaaaasia' in soft, melodic tones whilst images of stunning white sands, laughing couples and steaming bowls of food are montaged in the background like a visual ticker tape of every Thomas Cook brochure cover since the 1970's. It's well produced though, and I only mention it as, compared to the visuals, the slogan seems too lazy to be so ambitious. Can one country, and a small one at that, really capture the flavour of an entire continent, especially one so rich in divergent cultures? I was running this possibility through my head as our overnight coach dropped us off at the central KL coach station at two thirty in the morning. 

I would have pictures of the scene that awaited us when we got off of the bus, but I suddenly became very aware that flashing around several hundred pounds worth of consumer technology would see me quickly relieved of it, so I'll just say that the vista is one commensurate with city bus stations all over the world. Tens of people were sleeping on mats made from old cardboard boxes, presumably either homeless or awaiting transport in the morning, while the streets were lined with unlicensed taxi drivers, shifty looking men in dark corners and what I can only describe as hookers. I headed immediately towards the nearest beacon of western safety, a MacDonalds, and looked up where our hotel was. After a brief discussion with a man in possession of a car - taxi driver isn't a fair description - and with no will left to barter, we started a long journey towards our hotel. Long, not because it was far away, but because we drove around the streets with an obviously lost cabbie, stopping to watch as he ran out to ask passerbys if they'd heard of our hotel. So far, the Truly Asia moniker seemed a little ungenerous. 

Eventually we arrived and the hotel, seeing us looking both mentally and physically dishevelled, took pity on us and found us our room way earlier than we'd expected. After a shower and a snooze, we set off out into KL to see what the city had to offer. Which turned out to be shops. Lots of them. And expensive ones at that. We stayed on the Bukit Bintang, the main strip in KL, and it is literally festooned with shopping malls, all lavishly decorated and bidding for the attention of the top brands. The speed of architectural progression here means that only a small handful are graced by the Gucci's and the Burberry's (which definitely is Truly Asia), whilst the older or less fashionable malls stand forlornly apart, left to local clothes merchants or souvenier sellers which are scattered around like fleas over a decaying carcass. 

Building is massive here, both in terms of the rate of development and the size of the buildings. Cranes dominate the street and the skyline, whilst pillars of low emission glass slowly rise up to enclose steely skeletons, like a bodily decomposition in reverse. The city acts like an encyclopedia for modern skyscraper design, fashion and trends clearly visible in the architecture of the buildings, whilst their scale and materials are infinitesimally far removed from the small pockets of traditional Malay architecture that cower in the shadows of these crystalline giants. It's as if KL is playing catch up with New York or Shanghai (which, of course, it is) and, in it's struggle to look the part, has just thrown up buildings where-ever there's space, leaving a confused and erratic tapestry that never really seems anything other than modernly sterile.  

The most cohesive place we visited, and only in an organised, 'town planning' kind-of-way, was (somewhat predictably) KL's CBD, or central business district if you will. The silvery towers here have eradicated any remaining space for indigenous inhabitation, and so the place looks just like parts of Manhatton or the City of London. It's clean, and studded with the envitable presence of the shopping mall, but characterless and smacking of somebody trying too hard to fit a suit that wasn't made for them. 

Right in the middle of it all is the crowning glory of KL's architectural ambition, the Petronas Towers. Each is 452m high and at one point they were the tallest buildings in the world, and are still impressive today. After taking the obligatory pictures, we wandered around the park built to accompany the towers, a peaceful bit of meandering greenery that is accessed via, you guessed it, a shopping mall.

We also took in the Menara Tower, another colossal reminder of Malaysia's rapidly growing economy. It's surrounded by a nice, if scarily vague (considering the sign denies any responsibility for scorpion or snake attacks), parkland and a 'traditional' Malay village, complete with traditional Malay papier mâché facades and traditional steel structure. 

I know I'm being really snippy in this post and that it sounds very negative. In fact, we had a really nice time in KL, taking in the little luxuries that we'd missed whilst travelling across Asia. I think I'm just a little disillusioned by the whole 'developing city ' thing. It's been so eye-opening to be knee deep in genuinely indigenous cultures that it's made me a little suspicious (and a little disappointed) to find myself plunged back into a world full to Starbucks, Armani and flagrant capitalism. I'm not saying one's better than the other or anything, and I know KL is only a small part of a whole country, but it's just been a jarring juxtaposition and not how I'd choose to define Truly Asia.

But hey, at least it means we get themeparks in our shopping malls right? (Take that, Metocentre!)



Thai Phantom_Railay Beach

We've decided to head to Railay Beach, another suggestion, this time by one of the guys from our Russian tour (thanks Shaffi!). It's actually a mainland beach, rather than one of the ubiquitous islands, but is cut off from the major settlements by heavily forested limestone cliffs. This means I have to travel via minibus to Krabi and then onto Railay Village before walking out, through three foot of water, to an awaiting long tail boat that drops us directly on the beach. The boat is packed, so I nab a place right on the front, I think it's called a prow, and lay comfortably looking at the scenery bob by. 

Railay is actually quite an upmarket affair, certainly betraying our backpackers agenda (not to mention budget), and the two crescent shaped bays - cunningly named East Railay and West Railay - have very different characters. Our side, West Railay, has the nicer beach but is more family oriented. East Railay has bars and clubs, but it's 'beach' is actually a mangrove swamp which is used primarily as a dock for more long tails. The hotel itself is nice enough, basically a row of leafy little bungalows, but for some reason I let Kate convince me that, in the name of economy, we should forgoe an air-conditioned room. I appreciate that this sounds like first-world tourist whinging, but the humidity here was off the charts, leaving me to sweat like a pig in my single bed as Kate happily snored away in hers. 

That aside, it is an idyllic place, much moreso than many of the beaches we've seen. Towering karsts of limestone seal a brief slash of golden sands, and crystalline waters extend off into the horizon. It's especially pretty in the evening, as the shorefront is lined with candle lit tables, couples strolling the beach and people sat on mats, cocktails in hand, watching the sun set. 

Sunbathing and swimming are the main orders of the day here, but we do find time for a few activities. Perhaps the most extraordinary was our trip to the top of the southerly karst, that bookends the bay and separates the two beaches, before we dropped own into a saltwater lagoon. The lagoon, created by a massive sinkhole and channels cut through the limestone by the sea, is pretty spectacular, and a swim out into the duck-egg waters was a little un-nerving, especially because something brushed by my leg as I neared the middle of the pool. 

But more exhilarating for me was the approach and retreat from the lagoon, which involved four terrifying climbs, most using only mud-slicked ropes that looked to be fraying alarmingly as they passed over the edges of the cliffs. It was great fun all the same, and reaffirmed my childhood dreams of one day filling the dusty hat of a certain Dr. Jones. 

We also hired kayaks, which are amazingly hard work, and piloted them through caves and rocky outcrops towards some karsts that stand out in the middle of the sea. The Man With The Golden Gun was filmed near here, so that should put a mental picture in your head. We also did some snorkelling at a beautiful beach hidden away at the south of the peninsula. Whist we managed to catch sight of some little fishies, none were particularly beautiful, but the beach more than made up for it. 

Our only other excursion was to Ton Sai beach, that inhabits the northern edge of Railay bay, as the Rough Guide suggested it would be a good place to eat and that it's relatively accessible, on foot, from Railay West. The Rough Guide failed to mention, however, that Ton Sai is actually accessed via a perilously steep mountain pass, littered with tripping vines and bamboo snares, so as Kate and I made our way there - in 'evening dining' dress and failing light - we cursed the authors for lack of warning. We did manage to meet another young English tourist on the way there, an investor banker no less, who'd decided to take a year off after a successful run on the stock markets. Oh for a job in the City (eh Peter?).

The only other thing to do was to watch the neighbourhood monkeys, cute little grey and white faced critters, jump noisily over the tin roofs of the bungalows. Cute to us maybe, but as we watched the gang take up residence in a tree near the restaurant, I'm not sure how well they received they were by the staff.

Anyhoo, that's about all from Thailand. It's been a relaxing few weeks, but I'm eager to see something other than a beach so we're off to Kuala Lumpur soon, via coach. I'm sure that'll be an experience. 

Laters all.


Thai Advanced_Ko Lanta

Our next destination was decided in part after a recommendation from Kate's sister, Beth. A ferry took us directly from Phi Phi to the more secluded island of Ko Lanta, further south and much larger than some of the other islands. As we're just at the end of rainy season now, the collection of petite resorts are offering fairly good deals as they await the deluge of tourists that will begin arriving in November and December. Whilst we were on the ferry, a selection of touts began their essential duties in economic progression (their own mostly, I think) and upon finding out we'd already booked, offered us transport to our hotel. So we got off the ferry and, along with a handful of people who'd agreed to stay at the driver's hotel, boarded the awaiting bench-seated pick up truck.

This began yet another episode of 'Fleece the Tourist', which essentially involved taking us to their hotel first and then telling us the hotel we'd booked was currently under renovation, had no restaurant and no pool and that, in fact, we'd be better off staying here. The place they offered looked okay, and all the other people got off and looked happy, but as we'd already paid for our accommodation we stuck to our guns and told the driver to carry on. As we drove off, I had that heart sinking feeling that arises when you find out something really is too good to be true, and I was dreading what awaited us as we turned off the road and passed three bungalows that were essentially breeze block shells with massive holes in the roof and Black&Decker Workmates outside. 

As it turned out, the driver was, of course, lying through his teeth. The resort were simply extending their accommodation, and our bungalow was nowhere near the construction. There was a pool, and a lovely beachfront restaurant, the staff were kind and helpful and our bungalow was roomy and spotless. Although I was hugely relieved that everything had turned out well, the way in which our expectations and ignorance had been prayed upon had left me frustrated. Don't get me wrong, Thailand has been great so far, but I think the established tourist trade here has made subtle cajoling, monetary gamesmanship and even the outright con fair game when dealing with foreigners. Since arriving we've been fending off touts and scams almost everywhere we've been, and after a little while it gets pretty annoying - especially when I consider that we hardly ran into any of this swindlery in Russia, Mongolia, Tibet or Nepal. The worst thing is that it's made extremely cynical about anybody approaching me with a smile, as I'm afraid I'm about to be offered the opportunity to become the proud owner of some magic beans. It's a shame, par for the course I suppose.

We settle into the hotel and wander down the beach, looking at the other resorts on this stretch and picking out some of the other restaurants we'd like to visit whilst we're here. As it's off-season, the beach has yet to be combed so the sand is alive with tiny, translucent crabs and larger, more ponderous hermit crabs. It's very pretty and, as I watch the sun setting, I'm feeling much better. 

My days here are mostly spent wandering the beach, sipping cool drinks under the shade and trying desperately to catch up with this blog, which is falling behind at a rate of knots. The hotel is lovely, very tranquil, and seems a million miles away from the anglicised smoothness of Phi Phi. It's a short walk to a 7-11 (a mini mart essentially) and a range of local shops, but it's very easy to spend time within the grounds of the hotel itself. We spread out into the restaurant next door, a delightful arrangement of driftwood cabins and huts, with excellent food - the best so far in fact. It's a lovely spot and draws us back a couple of nights in a row, much to the disappointment of our own restaurant. 

Our one day trip was to yet another cave, this time the Khao Mai Kaew Cave which is located right in the middle of the island. After a disastrous attempt at moped riding, I'll explain in person as my ego is still too wounded, we decided to walk as there would be less chance of somebody loosing a limb. It was a good three hours, but the weather was beautiful and the walk was packed with interesting sights, including abandoned hotels, banana groves and massive rubber plantations. The latter involves hundreds of trees, their trunks cut with spiralling grooves, and each supplanted with a tiny bowl full to the brim with shimmering white rubber. It amazed me to realise that this method is still used to collect the vast majority of the world's rubber, something so simple yet so labour intensive, but plantations are good earners for the people of Thailand.

The Cave itself, reached by a short walk and a daring climb up a rope over a slow waterfall, was muddier but with less water than the one at Khao Sok, but that meant it was easier to take pictures. There were amazing shapes carved into the rocks by the water that flows through here during heavy monsoons, and the guide gave us a brief (and I do mean brief) insight into the geology of the island. 

There were:

Stalagmites and stalactites

Strange bamboo bridges over forty foot drops 

Spiders... Big ones...

And bats... Lots of them... 

It was fun, if not quite as adrenaline pumping as Khao Sok, and a nice way to spend a couple of hours. We walked back, more slowly this time, and stopped on some of the little beaches that lined the coast. 

We had dinner in the lovely restaurant next door again, as a final treat before we leave, and as I'm tucking into a delicious masaman curry, there's a massive crash above me as a coconut the size of a basketball lands a foot away from my head. If it hadn't have been for the rattan roofing, I'd have been done for! 

I've enjoyed Ko Lanta, it's much more of what I expected from the beaches of Thailand and somewhere I'd be happy to recommend. We're off to Railay Beach tomorrow, so I'll let you know how that turns out. 

Laters alligators. 


Thai Bomber_Koh Phi Phi

The journey from Khao Sok to Koh Phi Phi was typical of travelling around Thailand. A seemingly ad hoc arrangement of minibuses, coaches and taxis took us from the National Park to Krabbi  - one of the major tourist hubs for those attempting to get to one of Thailand's many islands - and whilst the trip was somewhat arduous, including quite a few stops at conveniently placed restaurants, the sheer number of people travelling this way has sanded the whole process down until it's smooth as oil. I marvelled, as I sat in the main interchange restaurant in Krabbi, at the fifty year old transport general who commanded entire squadrons of tourists, drivers and minivans towards what I can only hope was their final destination using nothing more than sticky labels and what must be the most fearsome memory on this side of the equator. 

Eventually we were dropped off at the ferry terminal and boarded the boat that would take us to Phi Phi. It was a pleasant ride, on a beautiful day, and we pulled into the working harbour of the island in the early afternoon. Phi Phi itself looks like a dumbbell (if you put your mind to it) and the two main land masses are connected via a long causeway of floury sand, the north beach of which was undoubtably the prettiest. 

Phi Phi is renowned as one of the capitals of the 'Party Island' chain, and is almost entirely dedicated to getting Westerners, particularly Americans, dangerously intoxicated as cheaply as possible. Particularly delightful are the children's buckets, within which are placed litre bottles of spirits, a mixer and a straw, that most people are carrying with them after 9PM. We largely abstained from anything too raucous, choosing to enjoy the sun and sand at reasonable hours like the sensible people that we are. I was also beginning to come down with a bug that put paid to any alcohol fuelled antics whilst we were on the island.

Whilst our hotel was nice and cutely presented, as an array of little beach huts set around a boardwalk, I actually found Phi Phi a little disappointing. It felt like a slightly refined iteration of the Ibiza model of island entertainment, focused primarily on nightlife and ensuring that visitors had as easy a time as possible. A good percentage of the shops were staffed by Western people, all of the signage was in English and the food was safely positioned to ensure that those that need pizza in a regular basis could easily get ahold of it. It'll sound pretentious, but after my exposure to the cultural highs of the previous trips, it all seemed a little tacky.

Anyways the beaches were nice and clean, and surprisingly glass free given the night time regime, so we spent our days reading, relaxing and watching a muscular man perform yoga way out in the bay. It takes all sorts I suppose. 

On to Ko Lanta. 


Thai Interceptor_Khao Sok National Park

After a comfortable night on the train, we arrived safe and sound into Surat Thani, a small town that acts as a major transport interchange for people heading to the islands on the east and west coasts of Thailand. The car park outside of the station was a heaving mass of touts, all trying to usher you onto one of their luxury coaches bound for the popular places - Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao - and when I enquired about buses to Khao Sok, the female tout just stared blankly at me - not an encouraging sign. 

The tout pointed us towards a little café (owned by another friend) where we waited for about an hour with constant assurances that they'd have a bus for us soon. Eventually, the lady approached us, rather guiltily, and said that we'd better try the public bus service and pointed over towards the bus stops. Sighing, I gathered up my bags and bought a ticket from a man who just wrote our destination and fare prices on a piece of paper; I hoped that would suffice. The bus was actually more of a coach, and it was packed. After we solved the puzzle of getting everybody off and back on, I was left standing in the aisle. Three hours later and, still standing, we arrived at the outskirts of the little village that supports the National Park.

The village sits right on the edge of the misty rainforest that makes up the bulk of Khao Sok's natural environment, the remainder comprising a huge man made lake that drives a nearby hydroelectric power station. Limestone karsts puncture the distant skyline, like towering sentinels in the late morning light, whilst the incessant crackling of crickets strikes up as we wait for a lift to our resort. We're picked up by a polite and uniformed young man, if an embroidered polo shirt counts as a uniform, and driven in a remarkably fancy pickup truck into the middle of the lush greens and yellows. We pass a few other unremarkable turnings and a half finished hotel that looks like the setting for the next Jurassic Park movie, before arriving into an ordered courtyard space lined on one side by a high, but open, building that makes up reception. Once there, we are given the choice of their selection of tree-houses, and we stump for one designed by Dutch architects who are friends of the owners. It's small, the space dominated by the huge bed covered by a mosquito net, but very cosy and possessing a distinctly colonial air.

As we settled in, I took a step out onto the veranda and saw the first of our visitors from the neighbouring rainforest - a long-tailed macaque. He jauntily sauntered over, passing under our tree house without a glance in my direction, and disappeared into the bush on the far side of the resort. My first wild monkey encounter. 

We decide to head straight out and have a walk around the National Park, as we only have two nights here, and the smart young man - who doesn't speak English, but politely smiles and nods after every exchange - kindly drives us to the entrance. After a brief visit to the Information Centre, we set out on the most straightforward walk we can do, one that takes us through bamboo groves, over small streams and down to the banks of a rushing river. It's less humid here, but the damp of the rainforest has much the same affect, making any uphill into a shirt-moistening experience, but we do see a variety of wildlife;

A horned lizard...

A tiny frog...

And lots of large ants - I very nearly put my hand on this branch to steady myself...

After the walk we decide to walk back to the hotel, and stop for a drink on the way at one of the hotels closer to the Park entrance. We've been deliberating about what to do tomorrow, as there are some more walks through the rainforest that would be cheap and hopefully entertaining, although almost all of the adventure here is to be had on organised activity tours. Rafting, tubing, guided walks, day-long excursions to parts unknown; all are on offer here, many peddled directly by the hotel. In the end, we decide to go out for the day,  travelling over to the man made lake on the other side of the park, where we will see beautiful scenery, a floating lodge and a maybe even some caves. After dinner at the hotel, we make our way back to the treehouse for our first night in the jungle. 

After a restless night, amid the constant screams of jungle creatures unknown and the persistent fear that a cobra was going to get into our mosquito net, we woke up early to be picked up and driven to the lake in the covered back of a pickup truck. Accompanying us are three people from the Netherlands, a young couple from France and three Brits who are touring Thailand before heading back home. The foreign contingent are the most fun, as the Brits are a bit older and seem to have no sense of humour - not that one excess airily implies the other of course. We arrive at the lake mid-morning, with the sun blazing down on us, and immediately charter a traditional Thai long tail boat (the accompanying traditional Thai outboard motor) and begin our hour long cruise over to the floating lodge. 

The ride itself is gorgeous, huge limestone towers rising up from the water, as do baleful limbs of long submerged trees, and everywhere is fringed with tropical greenery. Our guide tells us that the lake is over one hundred and fifty metres deep in some places, which makes me wonder how tall the trees that stab out from the water must've been. 

We arrive at the lodge, a broken line of basic huts floating on a precarious array of driftwood and bamboo, and have a swim before lunch - much fun was to be had by climbing the rickety bamboo diving platform, avoiding the protruding nails and leaping into the warm, blue waters surrounding the lodge. The Brits remained firmly 'clothes-on', but the rest of us bonded over a mix of impressive swan dives (9.8 to the French), classic bombs (thanks Franz) and woeful belly-flops (to my own traditional method). 

After a hearty meal of miscellaneous Thai dishes, we were offered a choice: either sunbathing and swimming on the lodge, or a jungle walk and caving with the guide. The choice was obvious and only the Brits were left on the lodge, reading their books whilst firmly camped out in the shade. We set off with our silent boatman and the guide, heading for the mysteries of... The Cave! 

The walk to the cave was about forty five minutes long, and peppered with river fording, clambering over rocky outcrops and our boatman making interesting items out of nearby plants. First he made me an ingenious water bottle carrier out of a vine, then a fancy hat out of leaves, before finally making Kate a tiara out of vines and leaves and then water bottle vines for the rest of the group. The Boatman was an interesting fellow, long haired and with a fatless physique, although most of our interactions were by way of mime as he didn't speak any English. And he carried a mighty machete, something I always pay respect to, especially when I'm being led deep into knotty jungle by two men I only met that morning.

The other interesting encounter we made on the way to the cave was leeches. Lots and lots of leeches. It started when the guide told us to check ourselves after a river crossing. Two of the group promptly erupted in screams (Kate was one) as the found tiny, inch long examples of everybody's second favourite bloodsucker (after the taxman of course) attached to various parts of their bodies. We carried on towards the cave, stopping every couple of minutes for more screams and hasty leech removals, which, incidentally are best removed with a simple fingernail, rather than any Indiana Jones style lighter/cigarette method. 

Eventually we caught sight of the cave mouth and, for me at least, it was one of the most exciting moments of the trip thus far, almost matching my first glimpse of Everest. I've never really been caving before, so as we sat just inside the mouth, preparing head torches and tightening our shoelaces, I couldn't wait to wander off into the blackness. And it was black. The total absence of light is a strange thing, where waving your hands in front of your face creates strange mental ghosts of hands that linger in the blackness long after they should. We pressed on past giant, spindly spiders, leapt into spinning pools of icy water and shimmied along ledges only wide enough for half a foot - all the while, the Boatman nimbly hopped along behind in only flip flops. 

It was a great experience, capped off by a chance to scare our wily Boatman by emerging from a secondary exit from the caves, and one of my best memories so far. We made our way back to the lodge, elated and grinning, with only a few stops for leech removal and a final swim in the warm waters to get clean after the mud and game of the caves, with the discovery of some genuinely massive leeches in some truly disturbing places the only thing taking the shine off of what was an amazing afternoon. The Boatman even made me an awesome bracelet out of braided bamboo, presented to me just as we were leaving. Yet more proof that I'm much better company if you can't understand what I'm saying. 

Our ride back from the lodge set off just as the sun was setting. Now this trip has afforded me some pretty special skies, but the one that accompanied us back to the pier that evening was the best so far. At first the sun appeared through a giant, gleaming puncture in clouds, like somebody dropping a fiery marble through a torn sheet, before the skies became a woven fabric of purple and red over blue as the night chased the day in front of us. 

Khao Sok will stay with me for a while, it was a beautiful stay in amazing locations and with great people. Tomorrow we se out for the island of Ko Phi Phi, one of the party islands, but it'll have to go some way to top where we've just been. 

Good night all. 


Thai Fighter_Bangkok

Our first flight since leaving, and it was a good one. We flew Thai Airway out of Kathmandu and I an heartily recommend them. Good food, great in flight entertainment and even a little flower, neatly tied, for the girls. I got off the plane in good spirits and was met on the jetway by something I had almost forgotten about - humidity. It hit me in the face like a warm, soggy blanket and I suddenly realised how the dry the first month of my journey had been. Kathmandu always threatened to be a bit muggy but any moisture had fled by the time the sun had gotten it's act together, whilst the rest of the countries I'd just travelled through now seemed positively arid by comparison. 

But the humidity was a less pressing concern now that I'd entered the airport proper. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport is cavernous, and seems more like a great, glassy exhibition hall than an airport. It was also pretty deserted, and as I drifted along on a seemingly endless line of moving walkways, past rows of empty, double stacked gates, it all felt a bit eerie - kind of like being in an office after everyone's left. 

Customs and immigration was a breeze, after that irrational moment of panic where I confirmed to myself I was indeed NOT a drug smuggler, and we joined an orderly queue fora taxi to take us to our hotel. The queue was smartly and professionally managed, with a nice young Thai lady matching you with a cab and making sure the taxi drivers knew where to take you. Our driver seemed a to pronounce the name of hotel a little strangely, but he kept repeating it to himself like a kind of mantra so I chalked it up to my considerable linguistic ignorance and leapt in.

As we moved through the heaving traffic and neon streets of Bangkok's business district, I wondered what our driver kept looking at. After peering out of the window a few times I realised that he was in possession of quite a violent muscular tic, one that would cause his head to snap quickly around towards two or three times a minute. After drawing my seatbelt a little tighter and making sure my head was firmly in contact with the headrest, I focused on trying to work out where we were. Almost as soon as I recognised a street name, I realised we were heading in the wrong direction but the language barrier was too high and I resigned myself to whatever grim fate awaited me when we finally reached our destination, wherever that might be.

As it happened, the driver just dropped us right in the heart of the tourist district of Bangkok, which meant naught but a 10 minute walk, backpacks and all, to our hotel. When we arrived, all of the past hour's complications washed away. The hotel was lovely, and we were told when we checked in that we'd been upgraded to a better room, one that turned out to be large, clean and modern. I had a shower, sank into the most comfortable bed so far and don't remember falling to sleep. 

Our first day was a sightseeing extravaganza. First of all, we wandered down the legendary Kho San Road, and stopped for a drink to let the rain subsided. My first drink in Thailand, a pineapple juice, and it was served to me by, of all people, a ladyboy. So far, so Bangkok. Despite rumbling grey clouds, we moved on and visited one of the the most important shrines in Bangkok, Wat Po. It was a strange, cluttered amalgamation of temples and shrines, covered in glittering, glassy mosaic tiles, the ostentatious use of colour and decoration in sharp contrast with the muted and austere reverence of Tibetan Buddhism.

  Wat Po is also home to the world's largest Reclining Buddha, a giant, golden statue that captures one of the Buddha's quintessential poses. It is massive and certainly impressive, and I especially liked his subtle grin, that when combined with the half closed eyes, certainly does radiate the kind of serenity you feel when you lay down by a stream (the story that accompanies the pose). 

As we left, we were stopped by a rotund and affable gentleman manning the gates to the Wat who smiled and asked us where we were going to next. We were actually heading to Bangkok's other major tourist destination, the Grand Palace, which he kindly marked on our map for us (despite it being clearly labelled and pictured on the map already) and rattled off some of the other places we should visit, how much we should pay to enter and how much a tuk-tuk should cost to take us there. In fact, he says, I actually have a friend who drives a tuk-tuk and he'll take you on a tour at a discount - as he's a friend - How lucky you are Johnny Foreigner, to bump into a helpful man like me! He signals his friend, who looked suspiciously non-plussed, but who wanders over anyways - presumably because he's caught a whiff of fleeced tourist. Actually no, says I, we'd prefer to just walk and we really want to see the Grand Palace today. Aha, says he, it's closed for lunch at the moment so better to go with this gu... My friend. At this point, having been told that Thailand's equivalent of the Tower of London was 'closed for lunch' at 3PM, I grabbed Kate's arm and walked away. 

The Grand Palace, which wasn't on lunch break, is actually both a collection of temples and the Thai Royal Family's official home. The temples are all sharp spires and gleaming mosaics, but there's even more pageantry and mythical flair here. Snarling demons, prancing statues of Hanuman, the Monkey God, and ancient protectors line the aisle ways between the shrines in a way that's both playful and slightly intimidating. We stop in to see the Emerald Buddha, in actuality a tiny jade figurine made to replace the original one that was supposedly carved from a single, giant emerald. It was only barely visible, but that didn't stop hundreds of worshipers gathering before it and offering prayers. 

The next day we travelled by tuk-tuk to Bangkok's railway station and bought our tickets for a sleeper train going south, much to the disappointment of the driver who was keen for us to buy them from his 'friend' who just so happened to run a travel agency. We'd hope to go north to Chang Mai, but the mumbled glugging of the BBC's Thai correspondent, standing in three feet of flood water, had put paid to that idea. We walked back from the station via Chinatown, which was pretty much like the rest of the city save for a Chinese gate in the middle of a roundabout. More interesting was a strangely out of place, yet beautiful, building whose facade seemed to mix colonial style with traditional Thai architecture. 

We passed, on our walk, a pier from which you could catch a boat that would have taken us to the famous floating markets, but the rapidly rising water had closed off that avenue of pleasure. Instead, we sat and watched hundreds of ugly, brown fish writhing by the pier as they waited to be fed.

Nearby was a choice example of the Thai approach to flood protection, shown above. I'm not sure what those sandbags are meant to do in the event of the river bursting it's banks and reaching that substation...

Our final stop of note is at the flower market. It's an incredible display, and something Kate enjoyed immensely; me, I was too busy trying to get us as far away from that substation as possible, although some of the colours on show were far too pretty to miss. 

We headed back, and after a delicious meal in a very funky little place, there was just enough time to dip our feet in the pool before bed.

Our final day in the city resulted in yet more walking, this time approaching the river from the other direction and finding a pleasant little park. The water is definitely rising, and I get the distinct impression that we're leaving Bangkok at the right time.

Not everybody is worried about the flooding, and this dog has at use found a use for all the sandbags lying around. In all seriousness, despite all the news reports indicating that Bangkok is in for a Rough few weeks, there's a kind of relaxed resignation in the faces of the people here, which is comforting to us, if not to them. 

We spend the rest of the afternoon, which was exceedingly wet, sat under shelter by the poolside, playing cards. Kate didn't fare too well, as evidenced by this picture, but I'm sure she'll have her revenge soon enough.

A mad dash through the torrential rain, a soaking tuk-tuk ride that I could have sworn was heading away from the station, and a quick pre-boarding donut before we're finally on board yet another sleeper train. This one is very modern and we're right on the top bunks, but, as Kate is so gracefully demonstrating, they're comfy and clean. 

Tomorrow we'll be in Surat Thani, on our way to Khao Sok National Park.



How do you Kathmandu?

This morning we left the remnants of our group deciding on what to do with their time in Nepal and lugged our backpacks to the hotel that would serve as our base in Kathmandu - the rather awkwardly named Hotel Encounter Nepal. It's a nice enough place, not quite as flash as the last one, but set around a pretty little courtyard that is a perfect sun trap. It's efficiently run by the most hands-on general manager in the world, constantly hen-pecking the staff, hurrying them along and greeting us personally at reception, asking us about our thoughts on Nepal so far and ordering us Nepalese tea - an almost undrinkable concoction made from whole cardamom pods. 

The room itself is the most rough and ready I've seen so far. The beds are bowed alarmingly and the furniture has a kind of 'house clearance' feel. Most worryingly, there's a live electrical point directly under the shower. Needless to say, we'll have to be careful whilst we're charging our iPhones. 

Kathmandu is a really interesting place, touched more by Indian culture than I'd have imagined. The smells of cumin, coriander and cardamom provide a constant, fragrant backdrop to the shouts of stall owners, the bartering of shopkeepers and the incessant whine of mopeds as they careen down packed streets. It's hot here at the moment and the sun bakes the streets, making them yellow and dusty. We have four days in Kathmandu and we fill them by walking, shopping and just watching the daily chaos unfold from shady street cafés. 

The walking takes me past asymmetric collections of Hindu temples, set in massive squares that are being encroached on by the ravenous shophouses spilling over from the surrounding streets. The squares are pigeon strewn and encircled by people with no set agenda, men sit crossed-legged whilst making odd objects out of wire and women just sit, talking and laughing. 

Something odd to comment upon on, but the electrical infrastructure here is crazy. Wires are strung wherever they can be tied, and create a spider's web of black cables that disappear and reappear from buildings almost at random. To drill a hole in a wall here is really taking your life in you hands, as wires must only be inches away at any given time. This system exists as demand for electricity here far outstrips supply, as we discover when the routine power cycling plunges our hotel into darkness for a few minutes before our private generator kicks in. It looks like anybody who needs a supply just climbs a ladder, splices into an existing cable and hopes for the best. I'm amazed there aren't more charred bodies littering the streets. 

Incidentally, the wires make a great playground for macaques, who whip along them like tightrope walkers or use them impromptu nests. 

Shopping is an interesting experience. The shops are narrow but deep, as tends to be the case in crowded commercial areas, and spill out onto the already jam-packed streets. Umbrellas, canopies, carts or even velvet roping are used to mark out just one more square metre of selling space. Most of the shops in the tourist area sell textiles, which the sellers work on whilst you're browsing, jewellery or *ahem* antique souvenirs. They're cheap and the quality seems respectable - although I'm glad I didn't wash anything with Kate's newly purchased orange skirt - but far more interesting are the local shopping streets that sell food, hardware and household necessities. Some of the alleyways have a distinctly 'Harry Potter' feel, although with fewer owls, more calf carcasses and about the same amount of cauldrons. 

Bartering is just as commonplace here as it was in China and Tibet, but less frenetic. The encounters are more one-on-one, usually in the safe confines of a shop or under an awning, so there's nothing to distract you from turning the screws. I'm getting quite good at it now, and when paired with Kate, we have quite a sweet system going. I play the angry boyfriend who's worried about getting to the airport and deny Kate access to anything other than a paltry amount of rupees. Kate plays the pleading girlfriend, desperate for just one more souvenir. It combines the power of my 'walkaway' (the WMD of the bartering world) with the subtle feminine wiles of Kate's puppy-eyes.

We also stumble across the sumptuously named 'Garden of Dreams' - a pay-to-enter private garden, with restaurant, lusciously laid out in a strange mix of colonial and classical stylings. The ruckus of the street dissolves almost immediately and as we sip cappuccinos and recline on cushions scattered over an amphitheatre of grass it's easy to feel like you're living in the last days of the Raj. Except with Oakleys, iPads and wireless internet access. It's a beautiful spot, nonetheless.

Our days pass quickly and this is the first place I've been where I wish I could have had more time. Several guys from our old group are doing exciting treks into the Nepalese side of the Himalayas, and I wish we'd allowed more time to tag long. It's not the end of the world, but it makes Nepal a place I'm adding to the 'must return' list. Before I know it I'm in a cab taking an unremarkable journey to the remarkably efficient Kathmandu airport to board my first flight since I left Heathrow. I've seen two continents, five countries, the world's tallest mountain and deepest lake and been on both the world's longest and highest trains, after taking only one flight. It feels particularly civilised. Other than the cows on the street of course. 

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Bangkok we go.  


A penny for 'em..

Okay, brace yourselves because this one is going to be wordy, politically edgy and maybe even slightly pretentious. But bear with me. 

I couldn't move on from Tibet without mentioning at least something about the politics of the country. For one, it's everywhere - in the capital, in the villages, in the streets and even at Everest. But most importantly, it's on the minds and in the words of every Tibetan I spoke to whilst we were there, and as such I think I have to write about it. I'll try and be objective, relaying only things I've seen or heard in person but, like anything political, you tend to find yourself forming an opinion and I intend to share mine with you here. 

First of all, some history and few 'facts' - just to set the scene. In the early 7th century, Tibet, once unified under Songtsan Gampo - the first of the Tibetan kings and he who is venerated in most monasteries and temples, had an empire that stretched from the eastern edge of the Middle East, down into northern India and through into western and southern China. This empire was conquered and reconquered, first by the Mongols and then by the Chinese, and whilst for much of the time sovereignty belonged to somebody else, Tibet was often left to govern itself. The religious and political figurehead was, and still is the Dalai Lama, and this living spiritual link to Tibetan Buddhism essentially had control over much of the day to day running of the country and it's people. So far, so Wikipedia. 

The part of history that really defined my experience in Tibet happens after China's Civil War and the rise of the People's Republic. Initially China seemed to offer Tibet a fair hand, negotiating an agreement for Tibet's civil autonomy from China (and creating the dreadfully named Tibet Autonomous Region - TAR), but after the Tibetan Rebellion in the 1950's (and the Dalai Lama's resulting escape to northern India) China renounced any agreements and started to exert it's military and political dominance over the area. Drujal told me that in suppressing the Rebellion, the Chinese military killed as many as one million Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries, which was the start of China's increasing occupation of Tibet. 

Despite a softened political approach in the 80's, and timed to co-ordinate with the Tiananmem Square protests, Tibetan monks from across the orders began an uprising the ended in a brutal physical suppression and a legacy of anti-separatist propaganda and governance in the TAR. It's this air of repression that most coloured my journey through Tibet and the thing I'll talk about a little more, if I've not already bored your legs off. 

Since the last uprising, the Chinese Government have began a concentrated and sustained attempt to bring Tibet more into line with mainland China through a vigorous (and well financed) campaign of social engineering. Chinese people and businesses are given substantial economic incentives to relocate to Tibet and the government financed the Beijing-Lhasa railway to facilitate Chinese immigration to the region. It's been so successful that posters in the train station are publicising four new lines from mainland China to Lhasa that will open in the next few years. 

And it's not just infrastructure in which China is investing. According to the Times, China has invested over $40 billion in Tibet since 2000, almost doubling it's GDP and encouraging economic growth in the region that far exceeds that of similarly developed nations. The money shows, especially in the capital; Lhasa's roads are smooth, it's streets are crammed with expensive shops and the skyline is skewered with cranes announcing the continued development of new malls and hotels. You could be cynical and suggest that this investment is to facilitate the discovery, extraction and transportation of the vast reserves of zinc, copper and lead recently uncovered within Tibet's borders (enough to double China's reserves of these precious metals), but perhaps that's something for another post. 

These are rather 'subtle' methods of affecting a country's genetic makeup though; much more obvious are the Chinese flags that flutter from every building, no matter how rural, the nationalistic music piped out over PA opposite the Potala Palace and the intimidating presence of the Military. During my time in Tibet, I have seen literally hundreds of soldiers - all carrying either assault rifles, tear gas launchers or shotguns - just standing watch, mostly in public places and on roofs, a constant reminder to the people of Tibet of what to expect if there's another uprising. Taking pictures of these soldiers, even accidentally, can result in forced deletion of said pictures or even confiscation of the camera entirely. We were warned that even remarking on their presence could result in 're-education', especially for Tibetans, who can be imprisoned, without trial, for sedition for even the vaguest hints of dissent. 

This oppression extends to even the most sacred of Tibet's cultural makeup: its religion. The Dalai Lama, as a vocal opponent to the Chinese Government, is exiled and his image, which is fundamentally important to most Tibetans, is verboten. All temples and monasteries of a recognisable size have permanent military garrisons - Door-Je tells me they are there for the monks protection, before flashing a grin dripping with irony - and the Government collects all of the entrance fees from all of the visiting pilgrims and tourists. The red LEDs of CCTV cameras blink in even the darkest corners of the Potala Palace and there are orange jump suited 'caretakers' around every corner in almost all of the country's major monuments. Even the website of the Nobel Prize is blocked, after the Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama. 

The shame of it is that the Chinese agenda seems to be prevailing. Sure, most of the Tibetans I spoke to were angry and frustrated by the occupation of their country - and make no mistake, it is an occupied country, if not legally then certainly in spirit - but when they did speak, it was with sideways looks and in hushed tones. Our local guides, bar the most intimate of conversations, were reluctant to even mention the Chinese for fear of having their licences revoked or being tossed into jail. So nothing's said, not unless you ask about it, and everyone just gets on with their lives, resigned to their fate as China's political and economic plaything. 

Worse still is the effect all this is having on the upcoming generations. Teenage Tibetans, especially in the capital where their exposure to Chinese wealth is all the more alluring, are starting to eschew their nomadic roots in favour of trucker caps, Nike trainers and train tickets to Beijing. Door-Je tells me that in his village, one close to Drujal's in the Amdo region, children no longer want to stay with their families in the countryside but first travel to Lhasa before moving on into China for work, and the rural communities are suffering because of it. Villages are getting older, and herds are thinning as there are no new herders to fill the gaps as the elderly step down from the saddle. Progress, I suppose you might call it, but it's progress that seems to be undermining the heart of Tibetan culture and family life. 

I know that this whole post is ill-researched and hopelessly naive, but the state of affairs in Tibet was so apparent that it coloured the whole of my stay there. I know that taking potshots at the Chinese Government, one of the bête noire's in today's international community, is easy and that their claim over Tibet is probably above board and 'legal' - if that word means anything at all. I also know that three weeks in a country doesn't make me an expert on Chinese-Tibetan relations, but I can't help but feel for the people of Tibet. The methods by which their culture is being usurped and discouraged - both directly and indirectly - reeks of oppression and suppression. Tibet, as a political talking point, has dropped off of the international agenda recently - perhaps because China now owns a large part of both US and European debt - and it probably won't reappear any time soon as there are probably hundreds of problems of greater, or more savage, urgency to deal with, hence why I think it's worth mentioning here.

So in lieu of the international community storming Lhasa, or me chaining myself to a railing in Beijing, I would just appeal to you to learn a little bit more about Tibet and what's going on there. Visit if you can, it's a genuinely amazing place, but if you can't then start with perhaps the Dalai Lama's talk on and the Econmist has some excellent articles on Tibet's politics well worth reading ( If thats too much trouble then you could read the Wikipedia page and go on from there. I don't know what good it'll do Tibet, but I guess you never can tell.

I'll leave you now, having almost certainly put the mockers on my re-entry into China, and I hope you're all doing well. 


Crossing Boundaries

After the weirdest breakfast I've ever had (cold fried eggs, chips and toast), we made our way down the soggy hills - yet more winding roads of certain death - towards the small collection of buildings that support the Chinese Immigration Terminal. An austere, Orwellian thing of stained concrete and unclean glass, the Terminal looked like it had been excised from a soviet airport and airlifted in - enough to make those whose paperwork might not be completely in order think twice before crossing. Dealing only with crossings by foot, the queue outside the Terminal was already well established by the time we arrived. Shuffling slowly forward, Drujal was moving up and down the group giving us some information about what to expect inside and checking that we weren't carrying anything overtly Tibetan on us; the Chinese Government are reluctant to allow any information about Tibet leave the country - even Lonely Plants are forbidden and will be confiscated or redacted to ensure no anti-Chinese / pro-Tibetan messages escape into Nepal. 

As I was trying to make myself look as un-capitalist as possible, I caught sight of around fifty people - Nepali Indians travelling back from pilgrimage, I later found out - making their way in a jumbled mass towards the doors. What made the spectacle worth noting was what they were carrying, specifically everything fifty people would need to survive for a couple of weeks, and how they were carrying it, which was on their heads. Barrels full of things, unidentifiable metal frames, patio furniture and even small children were uncomfortably strapped around the heads of the pilgrims some of who looked way over 60 years old. As well as looking massively uncomfortable, it seems an unusual system for carrying (as the method of strapping must direct all the weight through the spine) but who am I to argue with centuries of logistical evolution? The picture above also gives you some idea of how many people use the terminal, although I have to concede, everything was controlled and well ordered.

After a final (manly) hug from Drujal, and a relatively uneventful passage through customs (Kate did have her passport retained and copied 'for security purposes'), we were heading across the bridge over the river that divides China and Nepal and bidding farewell to Tibet. The border itself is marked out by a rather unassuming line of little brown tiles set into the concrete of the bridge floor; crossing over them felt surprisingly momentous though, as I've never crossed a border on foot before. Upon crossing the border, I was witness to a minor miracle. Everything - the landscape, the climate, the sound, the quality of light - changed almost instantaneously. The damp from just seconds ago was replaced with a palpable humidity, here warm sun making the vegetation vivid and colourful rather than the dark, foreboding green of the forests back in China. 

We rounded the end of the bridge and the tarmac roads gave way to rough, dilapidated tracks of rock and mud. Vans painted in bright primary colours - and many emblazoned with the badges of Premiership football clubs - were gridlocked and the windshields were covered in spatters of what I fervently hoped was red paint. As we made our way towards the Immigration Office, I could hear chickens clucking and goats bleating somewhere down the street and could smell the spices of a good curry floating in the air. It was remarkable. 

We approached the Nepalese Immigration Office, which occupied the ground floor of a rather unofficial looking building, so unofficial in fact that some people just walked right past it. The interior if the office itself could only be described as bedlam, the Nepali immigration process rely primarily on speed, money and more than a little luck, which stood in sharp contrast to the imposing authoritarianism of the Chinese side. The office was a little bit bigger than your average sitting room, the whole building having a slightly residential feel, and packed with about sixty people. There were no guards, just three Nepali men, dressed in football shirts and shorts (immediately drawing comparison to the immaculately uniformed Chinese soldiers from moments ago), handing out forms and collecting passports and great wedges of cash from whoever could shout the loudest. I managed to catch the eye of one officer, mostly by waving around my wedge of cash, and our group started the Immigration Process. After visas were issued - mine was stuck in upside down incidentally - they had to be signed by the solitary Immigration Officer (making me wonder about the official titles of the men behind the counter) in his serene little office, and we were off into Nepal. It was a beautiful experience, so full of the life that comes from having little in the way of real bureaucracy and so welcome after the official sterility of the Chinese side. 

We were also met by the Gap Adventure's Nepalese representatives, whom I can only describe as an Indian Del Boy and Rodney. The 'tour leader' was a rotund and jovial fellow with a cruel stammer, whilst Rodders - the local guide of the duo - was short, skinny and shy. After a fleeting introduction, which I missed (so Del Boy and Rodney they shall remain), we were walking through the ramshackle streets towards a parking lot of coaches. Del started talking to a few of the drivers who were casually leaning on their buses, with the demeanour of the conversation having all the hallmarks of bartering - worrying, considering we were still four hours from Kathmandu - before proudly announcing that our bus was here. Handy that eh? 

We boarded the bus and found that we wouldn't be the only passengers. As we'd arrived in Nepal during one of the most important Hindu festivals, one venerating Kali, the female avatar of Lord Shiva the Destroyer, many Nepalese people were visiting their families and so the driver had brought his; a wife with a young boy, two small children and an older boy that was acting as a kind of banksman for the coach. As such, it was a bit of a squeeze, but Del made it an interesting journey by filling us in on the culture, history and happenings of the areas we were travelling through, although this did undermine Rodney's position as local guide somewhat. 

More fascinating than the running commentary was the landscape we were passing through. The lush, verdant valleys wound around rushing rivers and we seemed to be constantly rising and falling from one tropical gorge to another. Butterflies fluttered, waterfalls dropped from unseen lakes, alien sounds came from the surrounding bush and wide, lazy rivers became crashing torrents, and we just sat back and watched it all in stunned silence. We drove through villages and towns, saw people collecting water from wells seemingly miles from the nearest settlements and even got to see a local bus loading up in a way that would terrify Arriva. Life was much rawer on this side of the border, less suppressed than the respectful politeness of Tibet and made for great theatre as we drove by. 

A special mention must go to the visit we paid to The Last Resort, a luxury resort and home to a massive suspension bridge - itself the site of the highest bungie jump in Asia. A beautiful little place, smartly maintained and a real haven of tranquility in such a manic country, we walked over the bridge and were sad to find out that the jump wasn't running that day. Maybe another time. 

We carried on, stopping occasionally to let the bus cool down, and eventually the winding valleys reached a broad plateau on which the Nepalese capital is built. The density of the buildings began to intensify, as did the traffic, and before long we were in the brawling mass that is Kathmandu. The bus honked and nudged it's way through the traffic and crawled towards our hotel, a remarkably neat and modern place in a brilliant location within the city, and after tipping our guides - that was the last we saw of them - we had our last group meal before heading our separate ways. Another great tour, with good people, ended well with good food and plenty of cold beer. 

Kate and I have a few days here before heading to Thailand, so I'll let you know what I make of Kathmandu after I've explored properly. 

G'night Rodney you plonker. 


Great Escapes

My night at Rombuk was cold and restless. Breathing was difficult, every breath requiring utter concentration, and thus making sleep almost impossible. Allan's snoring, bolstered by his already suffering respiratory system, had reached volumes usually associated with light passenger aircraft. I'm really not joking - it was almost as if he was trying to make the loudest noise he could and had settled for one of the most bone-jarring death rattles ever heard. I ended up plugging myself into Kate's iPod - thanks be for in-ear headphones - but even then I could feel Allan's nasal barrage rattling my diaphragm from twelve feet. 

I grumpily woke up the next morning and Judy immediately asked me if I'd slept well. I bit my lip, was perfectly polite and then extracted myself from the blankets and got on the bus. Today we're driving to Zhang Mu, our final port of call in Tibet before we cross the border and venture into Nepal. Unfortunately, Drujal has been caught out by the subtleties (I could have said 'machinations' there) of Chinese bureaucracy so he can't accompany us over the border. The short story is that the Government told him that if he sent his passport to the central office then they would reissue him with a 10 year passport; instead they simply kept his passport and refused to reissue it as he's a Tibetan national. 

I think I'll really miss DJ when he's gone. Laziz was great, really fun and even better organised, but Drujal and I seem to have clicked in a way I never did with Laz. He's really easy going, knowledgable and has the kind of meandering intelligence usually associated with philosophers rather than tour guides. He's also in possession of one of the most colourful life stories I've ever heard; he escaped from Tibet before his teens, crossing the Himalayas on foot, and enrolling as a novice in a Buddhist monastery in order to have access to an education beyond the government-approved one he'd have received under the Chinese. Freed from his vows in his late teens, he decided to cross back - officially this time - and was promptly arrested for illegally crossing half a decade ago and imprisoned (without trial) for four months. After his release, he battled briefly with alcoholism - he's tee total now - before joining Gap Adventures and leading people all over Tibet. He's a fascinating guy and it was a privilege to make this journey with him. 

Anyways, with one final glance back at Everest, we started off again, back the way we came - twisting, lethal roads and all - before rejoining the highway and making our way along the sandy flatlands that edge the Himalayas. We pass mile upon mile of what I can only describe as desert, punctuated only by the occasional hill or lake, the landscape seemed endless. Yellow sand disappeared over the horizon, making the mountains we had only just left seem like a cruel mirage. 

Slowly, the plains began to undulate like a lazy sine wave, getting bigger and bigger, until we were travelling up and over impossibly rolling hills and valleys. One more big up and the land plateaued, suddenly presenting us with almost the entire Himalaya range in one vivid panorama. The rocky, moonlike plains seamlessly ran into the snow-lined borders of the mountains, our distant viewpoint making it seem like sugar sprinkled over concrete. No more superlatives, I'll let my unworthy photos try and speak for themselves. 

After this final Himalayan crescendo, the coach dived into the valleys again and the landscape reformed itself once again, this time into damp, green cliffs and foaming waterfalls dropping over mossy rocks. We'd left the dry, crisp climate of the high lands and were now moving into the wet, grizzled weather of the sweeping valleys that deal with the tonnes of water storming off the mountains towards the sea. This creates dramatic gorges, overpopulated with the plant-life that can't survive in the unforgiving high altitude environments, and whose orientation means that it never really dries out. 

Another harrowing coach ride, worsened by whole, coach-sized chunks of road having crashed down the valley due to recent landslides, and we arrived in Zhang Mu. It's an unusual place, a pioneer-town balanced precariously on the cliffs and as such is mostly vertical. Massive towers rise up from the soggy forest floor and huge drainage culverts (or waterfalls, as Judy called them before I unthinkingly disillusioned her) drive through the town, meaning wherever you are you can always hear the rushing of what is mostly water. Zhang Mu is also a massive logistical hub, mostly for deliveries to and from Nepal and India, so the streets are lined with cheap booze joints, red-lighted 'massage parlours' and pharmacists - basically, everything a trucker needs to get him through another night on the road. 

We all head out after settling into our rather pleasant hotel, our last meal with the Tibetan guides who'll leave us at the border tomorrow. It's a quiet affair, as most of the group are shattered, but I find a moment to share a final (non-alcoholic) drink with Drujal. It's a suppressed end to an amazing country, but it's an end nonetheless. 

Until tomorrow.



Drujal had promised us an early morning and he didn't disappoint. We had to be on the bus at 6AM, so we were up at 5.30AM to pack and get ready. It would have been even earlier if we'd have had to have showered, but the guesthouse didn't believe in washing. Thank heaven for small mercies.

Worse than the time was the cold. We'd noticed the temperature drop as we climbed further above sea level, but when compounded by the early morning winds it was literally freezing. I helped pack the bags onto the coach just to slow the onset of frostbite that was threatening to take any number of appendages, some more vital than others. Once we were all aboard, we sat quietly awaiting the bus' heating system to warm us up enough so that we might be able to go to sleep without the fear of hypothermia taking us before daybreak. But the bus didn't have a heating system. Those few hours were the coldest I have ever been. Unable to move around, or put on any more layers, I just sat there and stared intently on the horizon, waiting for the sun to appear over the mountains.

Even when the sun did eventually break from cover, it still took a good few hours before I could drop the hood of my jacket. At least the landscape was becoming more interesting, and more evocative of our destination, with snow capped mountains beginning to tear across the skyline beyond the tussocked plains. 

After what seemed liked hours of relentless cold, we pulled over at an irrelevant looking lay-by and were encouraged to make our way off the bus. I was reluctant, as I'd just started to get the sensation back in my thighs, but when I did eventually stagger off I saw what was causing all the hubbub. There, framed by the disappearing hillsides that lined the mountain pass, was Everest. Our first real-life, honest to goodness view of the highest point on Planet Earth. Mind blowing stuff. 

Stranger still was the Tibetan man, in his bright red North Face jacket and knitted hat, looking over a small pack of dogs. Who he was and what he was doing all alone on a pass 5248 metres high, early on a frozen morning, with no visible means of transport, will remain a mystery. But I managed to coax a photo out of him, just because it felt necessary to record his existence if nothing else. 

We dropped into a network of valleys, losing our landmark for a few hours before stopping in a rough rural village for lunch. It goes to show how well oiled this tourist route is, that no matter how run down the village there's always a restaurant with an English (and I use the word generously) menu (again, generously). Just as we were leaving, a huge plume of sand rose above the building line and around the corner can a column of the dustiest children I have ever seen. Most were wearing fragments of a uniform, marking them out as belonging to some sort of institution - hopefully a school - and there must have been three hundred of them. 

Most just looked at us strangely as they passed, some threw insults, some laughed and some even practised English on us. The more inquisitive from the regiment posed for photos or offered a high five, and then, just as dustily as they'd appeared, they were gone. 

We carried on, along the ochre valleys, and after crossing a Chinese Military checkpoint (the Chinese do love their checkpoints) we were finally in the Qomolangma National Park. The coach then made it's way up a terrifying collection of snaking, un-barriered tracks - another good time for Jane - stopping at the peaks of the passes we crossed and allowing me to put together a collection of photos of Everest from ever shortening distances. 

Finally we arrived at Rombuk, a 'town' which essentially comprises two buildings - a monastery and a guest house, our home for the night. The guest house rooms are four berth, so we shared with an ailing Al and Judy again - the effects of altitude had affected Al's asthma and dust allergies and left him very short of breath. I could also feel the altitude here, more so than just the general lethargy and fuzzy headed-ness I'd encountered at lower altitudes. Every breath was a struggle now and I had to remind myself to breath slowly and deeply, otherwise I'd find myself getting light headed from the lack of oxygen entering my bloodstream. 

Drujal had warned us earlier that we'd have to be quick if we were to make it to Basecamp before the light went, so Ria, Sander, Ors, Kate and I hurried onto the bus that would take us to the Tent City and from there it was a short 3km hike to the Basecamp. The walk, contrary to what you might assume, is relatively flat, climbing only 200 metres in altitude and is pretty easy going. Every step saw my lungs relax in the low pressure and we made good time over the distance, all things considered.

The approach was wider and less impressive than I'd imagined. Some boulders littered a remarkably plain landscape, but most of the ground was covered in a mixture of small, grey rocks and sand with the valley walls the same, pale shade of grey. Some were snow capped, some weren't, but the whole scene was rather dreary, enlivened only by a small glacial lake on the road to Basecamp that was perfect for photos and added some colour to the landscape south of the horizon. I say 'south of the horizon' because the sky was a brilliant blue, the weather absolutely perfect for viewing the mountain and ensuring that it rarely left our sight as we climbed towards it.

After checking in with the Military upon arriving (told you), we climbed the small mound that marks the end of the tourist trail to Everest. The view beyond was incredibly tantalising, making it seem like only a few more steps to the second basecamp (the one for real mountaineers, with the appropriate licenses), and from there only a short hike to the summit. Everything looked so clean and approachable in the early evening light, and I would had given anything to put one step on the snow that would mark the ragged mane of the mountain. I know this blog has been full of superlatives, and I might have commented on it before, but this really felt like a milestone in both the trip and my life. I can't imagine much topping the sensation of looking out over such beauty, knowing that I've seen one of the world's greatest sights up close and in person... It marked a specific waypoint in my life I think; there was now Before Everest and After Everest. 

As I hiked back to the guesthouse, running mostly on adrenaline, I was unable to stop myself looking back at the mountain every few metres. It had been such a goal in our journey thus far, and something I'd looked forward to since planning the trip, that I was sorry to leave it behind. Even when we were safely tucking into a hearty dinner of rice and yak back in the saloon beside the guesthouse, I felt the need to keep darting out - for just one more look. The night drew in, the temperature dropped and people started drifting off to bed but the mountain remained, lit by some ethereal light, and looking seductive and dangerous in equal measure. 

Eventually I tore myself away and tucked myself into bed. The rooms are unheated, so I'm relying on the trio of blankets I've secured, plus my thermals, to see me through the night.

Oh, and Allan's just started snoring. 

Goodnight everybody. 


Journey to the Roof of the World

Day Three - Shigatse to Sakya

A more leisurely start afforded us somewhat of a lie-in, but I slept terribly all the same. Wracked with nightmares involving failing a maths degree, I woke up groggy and irritable. My mood improved somewhat when Kate managed to break the toilet lid whilst 'trying to reach the wet clothes' - her words, not mine - but then devolved again when I discovered we'd be charged for the damage. 

We travelled along quite happily, a stopped at a small tourist shop in the middle of a small valley. The route from the coach to the shop was literally lined with small children, hands cupped and all chanting 'fud'. It was the first time we'd seen organised, mass begging in Tibet and was quite shocking. The kids were all dressed in fitting, if dusty, clothing and none of them looked to be starving, so I can only assume that the children are used to subsidise the wages of the people from the nearby village. With no money forthcoming, we offered them a game of 'It' instead which went down famously - Al, especially, was a hit with the gang. It all stopped abruptly when a kindly Chinese tourist foolishly gave one of the children a couple of coins. She was immediately mobbed by the rest and they nearly dragged her to the floor before she could scramble back onto her bus. 

We arrived in Sakya just before lunch to find that the Chinese Government had evicted us from our hotel, the only one in town. Apparently the civil service were performing some kind of audit and used their beaurocratic privileges to takeover the whole place, presumably lest they had to share breathing space with the peons they were here to investigate. We made our way around to a nearby guesthouse, which seemed pleasant but very crude, and the girls were less than pleased with the toilet arrangements - one going as far as to say that 'there wasn't enough hand sanitiser in the world' to allow her to use them. 

Sakya itself is perhaps the most traditionally Tibetan of all the towns we've visited so far. The low, slanted walls of the vernacular buildings predominate, with a sprinkling of modern buildings trying not to look out of place. The roads are rough and in a constant war with the people trying to repair them; it looks like the roads are winning. The whole place is built around the monastery, which would be our next stop. 

We were also introduced to our new local guide, who'd be tagging along with us to Nepal, a young fellow by the name of Dor-Ge (Door Gee - or Geoffrey as Gil insisted upon calling him). He was pleasant and polite, but had a... phasic grasp of the English language, that would swing in and out of comprehensibility seemingly at random making his guided tour of the nearby Sakya Monastery nearly impossible to make sense of. 

I settled for reading the information leaflet and some plaques along the way, and using them to interpolate what Dor-Ge was saying. It seems Sakya is home to the Grey Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the most powerful sects after the Yellow Sect - that of the Dalai Lama. The artistry is much richer here, colourful murals explaining the history of the sect's bodhisattvas and intermingling with Hindu iconography. It was refreshing to see a different take on Buddhism, one that was stricter but took much more joy in explaining the cultural history of the religion. It was also nice to see the monks were modern enough to keep up with their fire drills, and made me chuckle to boot. 

After we left the monastery and Drujal said we'd be visiting a nunnery of the Grey Sect, set high in the nearby mountain, but Ria and Sander, now joined by Ors, wanted another go at mountaineering. I was feeling tired and a little under the weather after yesterday, so I didn't join and set out for the nunnery. But my foolish pride, spurred on by Al's taunts, meant that ten minutes later I was jogging up the approach after the trio. I was shattered by the time I caught up, but managed to catch up and we walked over the rolling hills towards the peak. 

The going was much tougher here, more vertical and looser under foot, and I was struggling. By the time we reached the halfway point, the lack of sleep and the severity of the climb had left me at the end of my tether. I reluctantly told the others to carry on without me and they, rather less reluctantly unfortunately, did. I sat on a rock and took in the view, drank some water and made my way down. I managed to take a different way back, through some ruined temple buildings which were made all the prettier in the dying sunlight. 

By the time I reached the guesthouse, I was done. I made my way to bed and collapsed. Tomorrow will be our earliest start so far as we make our way towards Mount Everest and the top of the world. 


Journey to the Roof of the World

Day Two - Gyantse to Shigatse

Early the next morning, Drujal led us on a short walk through Gyantse, past an abandoned hilltop Buddhist fort that dominates the town and through an intricate network of old residential streets - complete with cows in the road and people washing around the water pump. It's an age old cliché, but it really did feel like looking back into the past. Prayer flags, roughly knotted onto gnarled boughs, fluttered soulfully whilst wild dogs bark and chase each other down empty streets and dusty children peek out from shuttered windows before darting back inside if you manage to make eye contact with them. The hidden vibrancy that obviously bubbles away behind the plain, well maintained façades - combined with the steely blue light of early morning - made the complete scene memorable in a way that my photos wholly fail to capture. Beautiful. 

The monastery that we were walking to was made all the paler in comparison to the route we had taken to get there. Whilst there were certainly moments of beauty, the chalky handprints made on the upper terraces of the monastery's signature temple for one, it's hard not to feel fatigued when seeing the same elements over and over, albeit in different configurations. Sad to say, but true. The flower garden was lovely though, and unique in the religious buildings we'd seen thus far. 

The final stop before Shigatse was a stop we hadn't intended to make. The late morning sun had soared and, as we dropped into the yellowing fields of the valley flatlands, I could feel the heat through the coach windows. Small buildings were beginning to spring up, dotted over the landscape and possessing a decidedly rustic character; many of the structures, and the rough walls that surrounded them, seemed to be made of rammed earth or even a wattle and daube style mixture - upon closer inspection, the material was actually row upon row of cow pats (or yak pats to be more precise) pinned out to dry in the sun. Used as fuel for fires, stoves and boilers, this excremental veneer certainly gave the buildings a unique texture, both visually and nasally. 

As we neared a cluster of houses, slightly larger than some of the others we had passed, we pulled off the road and Dewjal sauntered out and into the nearby shop to have a discussion with the locals. He then beckoned to us to follow him into the sunshine. We all got off and, slightly confused, wandered through the narrow passages created by walls of surprisingly height that marked the boundaries between what we now knew to be farm buildings. To be honest, I had guessed they were agricultural quite a while back, not due to the keen application of my years of architectural training, but because there aren't many office or factory buildings with façades of yak droppings and cows tied up outside. 

As we made our way through the silent and empty gaps between the compounds, Drujal occasionally disappearing into one for a few seconds before waving us on to the next one and we managed to pick up a trio of local children. They didn't say much, even when I tried my best 'Me Tarzan, you Jane' impression, but they seemed happy enough to follow us around, sometimes sniggering at our funny clothes and strange voices. 

Drujal, deciding we were slowing him down in whatever quest he'd set himself, told us to wait on the corner of a larger farm building and then vanished around a wall. We wandered out into a nearby field, although that seems an inappropriate choice of words given the scale of the place, and happily watched a yak chewing on rapidly drying hay. The view of the mountains surrounding the lush valley floor was lovely and I just relaxed in the warmth of the morning, waiting for Drujal to reappear. 

When he finally did, he led us through a small gate and into the garden of one of the farm houses. We were suddenly, and surprisingly, in the middle of a vivid tableau of rural Tibetan life; a gang of men were taking a tractor to pieces in an oily heap, a pair of small boys swung happily on the handles of a cart, two cows barged each other to get at a pile of hay and there, in the centre of it all, was a beaming matriarch watching over the scene proudly. 

Quick and confused introductions followed, and we followed the grandmother of the family up a flight of rickety stairs made out of roughly finished logs and came out onto a raised courtyard space that was enclosed by individual rooms. Yak cheese hung in little, flat baskets on lines beside drying laundry, yet more children were talking and playing and small benches, plants and kittens were scattered around liberally. The courtyard is used for both practical and social functions, and has the kind of welcoming, lived-in character - defining it as the centre of the home - equatable to kitchens in western Europe.

It was a charming experience, as our hosts were welcoming and keen for us to explore, although our entry had obviously been paid for by Drujal, but for me it was tinged with the easy guilt of the well-off visiting the poor. It felt like we'd come to simply smile, take pictures of their lives and leave again, which is pretty much what we did, and I wondered how many tour groups traipsing through your home it would take to buy a new tractor. Still, despite the feeling that we could have done a lot more for them before disappearing into the ether, it was a fascinating diversion and full of the richness that only people can bring to seeing new places.

We drove on, arriving in the surprisingly modern city of Shigatse. Long concrete boulevards shone in the bright afternoon sunshine and we pulled into the courtyard of a nice, if slightly characterless, hotel before Drujal explained the afternoon's activities. Most of the group had decided to visit the City's nunnery, famed for it's carpet weaving, but Ria - perhaps still smarting from having missed the last hike - was keen to give her walking boots a workout. Sander and I agreed to join her and as the rest of the gang headed in the direction of the prayer wheels, we set off up the near vertical approach to the mountain that towers over the city. 

We'd been assured that we were allowed to walk up this mountain (as the Chinese military restricts access to a lot of the peaks), but it still came as somewhat of a shock to see what I can only describe as a platoon of Chinese soldiers at the top of the first peak. Their age suggested that they might have been cadets, but still, seeing so many red stars on camouflage got my heart racing a little faster. 

We carried on up, playing the standard mountain game of 'Oh there's the top... No wait, there's another one behind it'. Each peak gave us ever more spectacular views over the surrounding landscape, a collection of valleys and mountain ranges that resembled a swathe of baize, rucked up and roughly folded in places. The climb was heavy going at some points, with some heart pounding moments of climbing and scrambling exaggerated by Sander's cries for help when he got his (hand)bag stuck. The verticality made for some exciting photo opportunities as we leaned out over 200 metre vertical drops. 

As we reached the top, the light beginning to ebb away, we toasted the nearby prayer flags with some of Ria's secret gut rot that she'd hidden in her bag for the occasion, and basked in our victory and the wonderful views. 

We hurried back down, as the evening closed in around us, and reached the hotel in time for a celebratory bowl of chips and a beer or two. The sunset was a beautiful purple pink and it felt like a great ending to one of the best days I'd had whilst traveling so far. 

Tomorrow we're off to Sakya, home to the 'Grey' sect of Tibetan Buddhism, so more to follow. 


Journey to the Roof of the World

As this leg of the trip is made up of long coach trips and quick stops on the way to the Himalayas, I thought I'd handle the blog in the same way that I did with the Trans-Siberian train; namely short posts that capture the highlights of days. It should be more succinct and readable like that, at least that's what I hope. 

Day One - Lhasa to Gyantse

We left Lhasa early on a grey (and rather poetically) foreboding morning. The journey to Gyantse would take about seven hours and not many of the group were looking forward to spending so much time on a coach. I was fairly nonchalant, now battle hardened by spending so much time in confined spaces with people you barely know, and this relaxed attitude quickly seemed justified as it appeared we'd be making quite a few stops along the way. The first was at the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, that winds itself out of Tibet before eventually meeting up with the Ganges in India. Wide, flat and choppy, this seemed like a rather plain start for what would become one of the world's most vibrant rivers, but the gunmetal skies did make it all seem quite dramatic. 

We then began the long, long winding road that would take us over our first mountain pass over 5,000 metres high. A lot of the group were on altitude sickness tablets and the medication, combined with our driver's somewhat liaisez-faire attitude towards the physics of sheer drops and approach velocity, left Jane crouching in the middle of the aisle, covering her eyes and turning a delightful shade of green. The view from the top was well worth it though, as we got a glimpse of the next valley and the Turquoise Lake. A surprisingly apt (and succinct) name given the Chinese tendencies for place naming, the Lake definitely ranks as one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. I didn't know water could be that colour. Amazing. 

It got better as we stopped on the banks and I was allowed a quick paddle. It wasn't as cold as I thought it would be, considering it's altitude and that it's glacial - comparable to a dip at Longsands during March - but the scenery was stunning. 

Onwards and a lunch stop. The touristy restaurant, which was the slowest I've ever been to, attracted some young Tibetans - they seemed excited to see us and were only to keen to have their pictures taken. 

Another 5,000+ metre mountain pass, and we were well on our way to Gyantse. We did stop, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was absolutely freezing. I hurried out, took some particularly half-arsed photos, then flew back onto the bus as soon as I could. Some people used the opportunity for a wee stop, which I thought was crazy as they must have had to snap it off when they were done. Brrr.

We carried on, stopping briefly at another mountain top lake. This one seemed to be even bluer than the Turquoise Lake, as illustrated by the photo. That's not sky, it's water. Isn't that incredible? 

Just one more piccy, I can't get over that blue. 

We finally arrived in Gyanste and, after checking into a hotel that looked like it had been transported to Tibet from Chernobyl, we went for dinner. It was Al's 50th birthday, so Judy and Drujal had managed to magic up a birthday cake in the heart of rural Tibet. Not just any cake either, but some magical, ornate Chinese monstrosity, apparently made only out of whipped cream flowers and rice wheat. It was lovely and awful in equal measures.

We retired early-ish, as I think the altitude had gotten to some of the group. 

Tomorrow, Shigatse. 


The Englishman Who Had A Day Off and Went Up A Mountain

Well the free day that was promised in the itinerary has become a lot less free and I'm actually quite glad. We'd already been to most of the major points of interest within Lhasa's immediate vicinity with the group, and I was sure our budget wouldn't stretch to hiring taxis to drive us around and about the Tibetan countryside, so when Drujal suggested some optional activities he could arrange we leapt at the chance. It seems all of the group, bar three, were also looking for something to do, so eleven of us jumped in our bus and headed off to another monastery quite some distance from the capital.

As the bus edged it's way up the mountains that surround Lhasa like the edges of a bowl, I could see what appeared to be a great tangle of brightly coloured cloth draped over the pass in front of us. What it actually turned out to be was a great tangle of brightly coloured cloth, prayer flags to be precise, spun out over the rocks in massive swathes. It looked as though a spider had exploded after eating a barrel of Skittles. The prayer flags I'd seen in pictures always seemed to be solitary, almost lonely, strings of colour artistically lining a snowy mountain path - the reality seems to be that the Tibetans go in for quantity over quality. We stopped to take pictures and admire the view. The ground was littered with hundreds of tiny stupas, a kind of monument to prayer, all made out of tiny stones, like a lilliputian graveyard. I had a go at building my own, quite successfully, until the bus driver's 8 year old daughter showed me up by making a more elegant and much sturdier stupa right by mine.

We carried on along the valley on the other side of the pass, taking a steep turn into another, much narrower valley. As we neared the Monastery, I realised that the mountains behind were covered in an incomprehensible array of yet more prayer flags, this time in strings that spanned mountain peaks. The side of the mountain looking down the valley was literally covered by them, and my mind reeled at how they got there or, more importantly, who had the unfortunate job of putting them so far up a mountain. 

We alighted from the coach and made our way up the hill upon which the monastery buildings are built. It was much quieter here than at yesterday's monastery, with less tourists, and the compound was understandably more spread out, nestled into the hillside and connected by rugged paths. It was quite hard work moving around, as we'd come up quite a way from Lhasa, but I'd avoided Great Wall-esque tunnel vision thus far. Given that I was finding it tough going, it was a little demoralising to get near the top of the complex and find a 10-year old girl with her brother, who looked a little too old to be carried, uncomfortably strapped to her back. I hope he remembers her kindness when he grows up.

The buildings, mostly chapels and temples carved into the rock, were interesting (the highlight being a cave, dark but shallow, with a shrine at one end and an arm-length hole in the rock face at the other - I could help but think of Flash Gordon as I gingerly put my hand in) but far more noteworthy were the people. The monks here were much more friendly, smiling and saying hello, and welcomed their photographs being taken. The whole place felt more casual than the last monastery, and it made it a good place to walk around as a visitor. And yes, that is a real goat in the photo. 

As we neared the top of the complex, Drujal told us that those that wanted to could strike out for the top of the mountain that stood behind the monastery. He also said that the climb wasn't that hard, and here's where the alarms should have sounded, although he'd never reached the top himself. Drujal's ever nonchalant manner implied that he'd just given up out of boredom rather than the challenge of the terrain, so, suitably inspired and looking for adventure, Kate, Sander, Rosa and myself set out on the little mountain track that led gently up from the monastery. Upon rounding the first corner though, it was quickly apparent that the way was going to get harder and that my first real attempt at exercise at altitude was going to be a struggle. My legs almost immediately turned to lead and every ten metres of ascent was like one hundred at normal altitudes. The going wasn't actually too bad, like a moderately steep trek in the Lakes, but the height and the lack of real exercise conspired against me. There were pretty little mountain flowers scattered about, an the view down the valley was impressive, so slowly but surely however, and with more breaks than I'd care to admit, we carried on towards the peak. Well... A peak. The prayer flags were starting to make an appearance so we knew we must be near the top. A last second burst of adrenaline pushed me upwards, over the edge of a ridge, and to one of the most extraordinary views of the trip thus far...

...A sixty year old monk sat crossed legged and looking right at me, with an expression of slight bemusement. I was so shocked I almost missed the two nuns (both 50+) and the two young lads carrying a 10ft steel post behind him. As Sander, Kate and I clambered up to the ridge, the real peak being about three miles away, the monk stood up, reached for a little wicker chest sitting nearby, opened it and offered us all a sweet from inside. It was an awesome moment. We tried talking, without much luck, but the young helpers had better English and explained that they were up here to erect a new anchor post for the prayer flags. As they set about digging a hole (after a climb that had left me exhausted) we took another sweet proffered by the monk and admired the view. It was beautiful, but the real joy of the walk had been the chance encounter, which left me smiling for the rest of the day. Kate climbed back down to collect Rosa, who'd decided to stop a little way behind us, as Sander and I took our photos and marvelled at the scenery.

As we started down (with a final sweet from the monk) we noticed a collection of large birds circling the mountain, and waited for them to wheel back over. Two groups, one set of eagles, the other vultures, swung low over us so we stopped and just watched them ride the thermals. 

Just as we could start to see the monastery again, we heard a loud shriek and, looking up, saw a solitary figure on the edge of a ridge, howling down the valley. We howled back and after a wordless (but noisy) back and forth with this wild man of the mountains, we set off back after Kate and Rosa. 

By the time we'd caught back up with the them, we were almost at the bottom and decided to head back to the bus to meet up with the group, but not before taking a picture with some young monks, only too keen to pose for us (in a surprisingly 'gangsta rap' way for monks), and not before being overtaken by the same wild man we'd shouted at not twenty minutes ago. Given that it had taken us about forty five minutes to descend to this point, and he was a good 400m above us when we saw him, he either must have jumped off or been some kind of Tibetan Superman. Or both. 

We headed back to the coach, full of the bubbly excitement you get from doing something you've truly enjoyed. The ride back was spent swapping stories and photos with the group, who'd also enjoyed themselves from the sounds of it, and staring out at the landscape as it flashed by. 

Another group dinner, and yet more nourishing yak meat, before hurried packing and another early night. I'm tired and tomorrow we set out on the long bus ride that marks the start of our journey towards our next destination: Everest Base Camp.

Oh yes. 


The Empty Palace and the Clapping Novices

I know the title of this post sounds like the title of an unreleased Harry Potter novel, but I liked the sound of it and it's an apt description for our day today. 

An early start had led us to the group entrance of the Potala Palace just before dawn, and even our moonlight arrival hadn't snagged us first place in the line. We queued patiently (as is to be expected of a group composed largely of members of the Commonwealth) behind an excitable gang of Chinese tourists, and Gun Chow entertained us with his energetic, if slightly obtuse repartee. He's certainly an interesting guy, infinitely more open than Drujal, and his accent has a bizarre, quasi-American inflection. It made me think he'd studied in the States, as opposed to Drujal's English-Indian education, but it turns out both he and Drujal went to school together but Gun Chow is fatally addicted to pirated DVDs of Hollywood films, hence the Hollywood twang. He's also picked up the kind of casual theatrics that can stereotype Americans and it makes him starkly different from the normally more reserved Tibetans. He illustrates this learned behaviour perfectly when the doors to the Palace aren't opened on schedule, and he falls to his knees, banging on the gate and wailing like he's drunk - much to the delight of the Chinese tourists, who think it's some kind of street theatre and begin taking pictures. Whilst they ready their tripods, our group subtly uses the distraction to sneak in front of them and dive through the gates as they're opened by a very confused (and very orange) security guard. 

The Potala Palace is a very strange place. I'd only really heard of it as the home of the Dalai Lama, and knew nothing of it's symbolism, aesthetics or, most prominently, it's size. Another gargantuan enterprise in a country that's been full of them, the Palace is a hulking brute of a building, awkwardly crouched on a small hill that overlooks Lhasa - in fact, it's hard to make out what's hill and what's building and the haphazard and relatively unattractive architecture makes it look out of place, like a vulture trying to perch on a bonsai tree. And the size isn't just structural mass - Drujal had told us earlier that there are so many rooms in the Palace that if a person were to start walking at dawn, they would be unable to walk through all of the rooms by sunset, even at a quick pace. 

We climb the stairs that snake sharply upwards along the outer Walls of the Palace at a fairly brisk rate, leaving a few of the group struggling by the time we reach the heart of the Palace's collection of open rooms - the Dalai Lama's quarters. Surprisingly austere and low of scale (or unsurprisingly I suppose), the Suite comprises only a handful of small rooms, mostly meeting spaces of different sizes and accompanying ornamentation. Apart from the grander reception rooms, the place is rather homely - verging on cozy - and there's a real impression that you're walking through somebody's home, rather than the 'empty showroom' feeling of some of Europe's palaces and stately homes. This feeling prevails, in spite of the plastic sheeting and railings that attempt to make the place safe from the hordes of devotees that will push their foreheads against anything the Dalai Lama might have touched or even brushed against - so much so that there are dents being worn into wooden handrails that prevent visitors getting close to the altars, benches and cabinets that make up most of the furniture. 

We walk down from the Suite, through temples, chapels and libraries, mostly dark and incense rich but occasionally day lit by improbable light wells that must be tens of metres deep. Most of the rooms have the same homely feeling as the suite, although the temples and chapels blur together, in the same way churches do after visiting many in short succession. The most interesting is one of the smallest - the cave that spawned the Potala is still present in the depths of the Palace, its walls worn smooth after centuries of use as a holy place. We hurry towards the exit, rushing as visitors are only given one hour to tour the interior of the Palace - government rules, lest exposure to too much Dalai Lama lead you to form an impromptu uprising in the gift shop - and we emerge at the rear of the place to wind our way back down to street level. 

The Palace leaves an obscure and rather sombre impression on me. I'm amazed at it's mass and size, perplexed by the heirachy of the numerous chapels and touched by how cherished it all seems, both by the visitors and the previous inhabitants - it's hard to imagine that Buckingham Palace is so loved by the Queen or the people who traipse through it. But what makes the experience so uncanny isn't the size or the architecture, or even it's well-worn charm; it's how lonely it all feels. Despite the cynical attempts by the Chinese Government to obscure the fact that the Dalai Lama - perhaps the most important living Tibetan national - had to flee the Potala and now lives a life of exile in India, the place still reeks of abandonment. There are guards (dressed in orange overalls, and looking like extras from a Beastie Boys video), and you catch brief flashes of Buddhist orange as monks dart by performing perfunctory acts of maintenance, but the place has no spirit, save the remnants left over from it's previous life. The experience felt more akin to visiting Lenin's Mausoleum than touring a palace, made worse by the fact that seeing the Dalai Lama's robes laid out or books left open gives the impression that you're touring somebody's house after they've recently died. 

I'd still recommend it, as it's a deeply affecting place, but as we moved on to the Sera Monastery later that afternoon, it had made me feel a bit uneasy about what was going on in Tibet and I wanted to get onto Wikipedia as soon as possible, just to illuminate the dark spots in my knowledge of Tibet and it's politics. Anyway, upon arriving at the Monastery, one of the most prominent in Lhasa, the rather morose funk I'd gotten into began to evaporate. It was a beautiful day, hot and clear, and I wandered around the rather decrepit buildings with increasing optimism. We saw some mandalas, religiously significant and beautifully ornate arrangements of coloured sand made from crushed cereals, and helped some men carry a giant representation of the Buddha - shrouded in what seemed to be toilet paper - up some unforgivingly steep steps. We saw temples and chapels, monks living quarters wrapped around sunny courtyards and the most vile toilets I've yet come across (imagine that!) which I had the privilege of paying to use. I'll spare you they gory details, but lets just say that I wasn't worried about getting gum on my shoes in there. 

Whilst pleasant (obvious exceptions excluded), the real highlight made itself known as we stepped out of one of the temples and neared a high, dusty wall. There was the general noise of people that typically surrounds any major attraction at a tourist trap, but there was a kind of arrhythmic beat as well, sporadic and sharp, like wet clothes being slapped against a rock. As I stepped through a rough opening in the wall, I saw the source of what was now a racket of shouting and clapping. Dozens of novice monks, dressed in the crimson robes of the order, were doing what looked like a strange, one-sided dance. Some of the boys, and they were boys, sat on small, rectangular mats whilst facing them, stood up, were other monks, sometime two or three, who were performing theatrical claps - raising both hands above their heads, lifting a knee, before bringing it all crashing down in the direction of the seated novice. It was surreal, almost aggressive, but the smiles on the face of the monks implied that it was, at least in part, enjoyable.

Drujal explained that the first education an aspiring monk must obtain is in philosophy, and what I was witnessing was a kind of debate, albeit much more physical than I'd ever seen before. It seems the seated monk would put forth an hypothesis, based on his understanding of Buddhist teachings, and the standing monk (or monks) would challenge him, underlining the astuteness of their questions with a clap. It was fascinating to watch, and although it appeared to get heated (as debates can), the monks seemed to derive laughter and camaraderie from the whole affair. Once the battle was over, and a senior monk had decided whose argument was stronger, the boys would draw up cushions together and go through the finer points of the debate, joking and smiling with each other - that is my own hypothesis, based on observation, as my Tibetan is still maturing (!!) but the looks on their faces suggest they were enjoying the post-match critiques. 

That evening, after returning from the monastery, the 'Young Ones' (I said I'd be Rick and laughed at the nick name, no one else did) went out for dinner at a rooftop restaurant and we got to know each other better. Sander's great, intelligent and funny, and I feel like I got to know Ria and Jane a little better.

Tomorrow's a free day, so I'm off to plan what we can do with one day at the roof of the world. 

Night all.


To Lhasa... AND BEYOND!

We've arrived into Lhasa relatively early in the afternoon, having traveled past yet more beautiful scenery, albeit with very little sign of human habitation. So it's a bit of a shock when we arrive into the station in Tibet's capital and find a hugely modern building (both technologically and architecturally), packed with people and that exits into a large, but sparse, public square. It's all tidy and neat, and quite other to what I was expecting. 

As we make our way past the security checkpoint that leads into the square, and boy do the Chinese love an excuse to check your documentation, we step out of the air conditioned coolness of the arrival hall and into, of all things, blistering sunshine. The sky is a vivid turquoise colour, hemmed in by wispy, flat clouds that seem to be flowing over the edges of the surrounding mountains. Lhasa itself sits in a large, flat valley, as you might expect, so it's difficult to get a sense of the edges of the place; you get the same sensation in some of the valleys in the Lake District, where it seems that the fell edges contain the whole world. It's a similar experience here, albeit on a much larger, and sunnier, scale and one that is difficult to get across with words. 

Even if I can't properly explain the qualities of my distant surroundings, I can at least have a stab at the ones immediately around me. The station, the square, the billiard table roads, the nearby office towers - they all scream of one thing. Money. The Chinese have invested billions of yen in Lhasa and it really does show. Everything's ordered and polished, even the many, many soldiers that line the square (hence why my photos are bravely taken from the car park, rather than where the passengers actually exit the station), so much so that the whole place feels like a tiny slice of Beijing dropped in the Himalayas. Chinese citizens are being encouraged, and incentivised, to relocate to Tibet and it seems that the government are keen to ensure there's as little cultural friction as possible when people arrive at the station. A little 'social engineering' buzzer went off in my head upon arrival, and it could be the start of a frightening precedent for the Tibetans, but Chinese money has ensured a good station and modern roads - but it doesn't seem like good value if it costs you a piece of your culture. 

Anyhow, that culture is suddenly in front of us, alive and kicking, as we meet our local guide, Gun Chow. He's the exact opposite of Drujal, both in physicality and appearance, being as he is a sort of cross between a wrestler and a Tibetan hairy biker. He's got a massive smile of dangerously white teeth and a slightly American inflection to his english, but he's open and almost psychotically friendly when compared with Drujal's understated brand of traveller interaction. He greets us all, mostly with hugs, and then puts long, silk (read nylon) scarves around our necks - a traditional local greeting - and leads us to the bus.

As we drive through Lhasa, watching the Chinese money river flowing alongside us, washing up department stores, gold shops and glittering restaurant chains, I struggled not to be a little disappointed. It wasn't really what I had imagined the capital of Tibet to look and feel like, and although the shiny-ness and tinged of western culture implied a certain level of comfort could be relied on, it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. But as we pulled up at our hotel, which symptomatically enough is next to the construction site for a new shopping mall, and unloaded our bags, I realised that little pockets of Tibetan life still survive in the Chinese wasteland - our hotel being a prime example. It's a family run place, traditionally styled but smart and clean, and a pronounced step up in luxury from the hotels of the last tour. The rooms are arranged around a pretty little sun trap courtyard, scattered with large brass cauldrons filled with water and capped with floating flowers that skim around in the breeze. It's a beautiful little sanctuary, tucked away from the noise of the roads outside and raises everyone's spirits as we head into the evening. 

As we're still acclimatising to the altitude, Drujal declares the day a 'rest day' and we have a short, slow walk to Barkhor Square, pretty much the centre of Lhasa and it becomes clear that the Chinese money only reaches so far. To labour the 'money as water' metaphor a little further, it's like the wealth China's poured into the capital in recent years is like the tide as it slowly creeps up the beach - there's a ragged line that runs through Lhasa, perfectly visible when you look for it, on one side of which stands Lhasa, on the other, Lhasa as China would have it look. It's very surreal, but makes me happy because this line means that there is some of the real Lhasa left and I'm looking forward to exploring it over the next couple of days. 

Our group meal is a leisurely affair, and we try some local delicacies - momo's, a kind of filled dumpling either fried or boiled; Tibetan curry, which is meaty and mild; and, of course, the Tibetan staple meat - Yak. Yak is not too dissimilar to beef, richer perhaps, but it's hearty and accompanies my first Lhasa Beer very nicely. Drujal warned us against drinking on our first night, but a few of us risked it and the altitude, along with the relatively high alcohol percentage, meant it hit me like a sledgehammer. Whilst I maintained what meagre dignity I have, it took the wind out of my sails and I collapsed into bed without even seeing the pillow.

Goodnig... Zzzzzzzzzz.


The Day We Caught The Train

We've left Beijing on the overnight train to Lhasa and this time we're bunking in six berth cabins, two abreast and three high, making the top bed around 3m in the air. Our ever-diligent, if haphazardly organised, guide - Drujal - has seen to it that our group only inhabits the bottom two bunks on each side, so I get a pang of guilt when a Chinese lady of considerable heritage has to be literally man-handled into her berth by her two sons. I did offer her my bunk, but her sons were adamant that she stick to her reserved space; I think secretly they just wanted to see dear old mum try and clamber into bed. We're sharing with Allan and Judy, a very pleasant Australian couple who are retracing the travels Al did in his youth. I do get the impression that Judy isn't a 'seasoned traveller', at least in the backpacking sense of the phrase, as her expectations regarding hygiene and sleeping quarters seem pretty high considering where we're heading.

Compared to the last tour, the evening on the train seems a lot more cagey, with most of the group silently going about their business, preparing noodles, reading or even writing on their own. Perhaps it's the age differences, or perhaps the fact that there are more couples on this trip, but the ice has been a little more difficult to break this time around. In fact, ours is the only cabin with anything other than quiet conversation happening in it - I spent considerable time and effort reminding Allan of Australia's recent Ashes performance, thus continuing the great tradition of Anglo-Aussie relations - so we actually attracted in a few members of the group who wandered past our door. Consider the ice a little more broken. 

We drifted off to sleep, despite Allan's best efforts at nocturnal nasal orchestra, to awake the next morning to another episode of Tectonic Changing Rooms. The greening fields of cereals that surround Beijing had erupted into snow-dusted hinterlands, hemmed with distant mountains and a baby blue sky. Whilst there were stills signs of habitation, they became much less frequent, lending the whole vista a decidedly desolate appearance. As others woke, and went about making noodles for breakfast, I decided to explore the train a little more. This train, despite the denser sleeping arrangements, is actually much nicer than the trains we've been on thus far. The beds are comfy, and the cabins are clean and well looked after. Even the dining car actually feels like a restaurant on this train, compared to the 'man with a grill' on board the soviet trains. The only slightly unusual thing is the music that is piped through the carriage up until 'lights out' - it includes instrumental covers of, amongst other hits, Elton John's 'Sacrifice', Sinead O'Conner's 'Nothing Compares' and, most bizarrely, 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas'. There's nothing quite like waking up to Christmas songs on a Chinese train to Tibet to make you second guess your sanity. 

The day goes by quickly, as we play card games and chat, and a few more of the group let their guards down. Sander, a young Dutch Graduate, Jane and Anique all stay in our cabin for the majority of the afternoon, leading to us having a few cans of quirky American beer in limited edition cans - ones that are emblazoned with 'Remembering American Troops in WWII' and dressed in a fetching camouflage pattern - and staying up later than we should have. Still, by bedtime, it feels like we're starting to gel much more than we did thirty-six hours ago which bodes well for our stay in Lhasa. 

More to follow. 


Return to the Forbidden City

Our day starts with Kevin. He's going to be our guide, again, only this time he's taking us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the morning before we board the train that'll take us to Lhasa. I'm finding that the more time I spend with Kevin, the more I like him. He's educated and answers our questions intelligently and, at times, with rapier-fast wit. I think his wry sense of humour sometimes confuses the members of the group with English as a second language (or in some case third or fourth, to my eternal shame), but I find him a pleasure to talk to. 

Kevin leads us on the short, but packed, journey on the Metro, and to ensure we all stay together, he uses the internationally approved method of group shepherding - holding a water bottle over his head. Tried and tested this approach maybe, but as Kevin is shorter than me and, despite all expectations to the contrary, quite a lot of Chinese people are quite tall, it makes following Sander (the 6'3" Dutchman of the group) a much better prospect for crowd control. We emerge from the Metro at the south end of Tiananmen Square and Kevin gives us a rundown of the area's history but with a particularly glaring admission. When I ask him about why he's not mentioned the infamous student protests that gave the world one of it's most famous photographs, he tells me that the subject is not allowed to be discussed by licensed guides. Not only that, but if he does mention anything relating to the protests, and is overheard by one of the many plain clothes police officers patrolling the Square, then he will be taken away for (in his words) 'social correction'. One of the Canadians was confused about this phrase, and upon asking Kevin what he meant, he simply pushed his closed fist into the open palm of his opposite hand whilst flashing a little grin- another universal symbol, this time for 'he fell down the stairs guv'". 

We briefly discussed Mao's Mausoleum, but the massive influx of visitors combined with strangely limited opening times meant that the queue to enter was pushing six hours. Kevin told us he'd seen Mao twice in his life, both times with his parents, and upon being asked 'How was he?' Kevin simply answered 'He was there'. Perhaps Kev's not a died-in-the-wool Communist then. We carried on north, to the top of the Square, and what can only be described as the edifice of the Forbidden City. Edifice isn't a word I get to use nearly as much as I'd like, but is totally appropriate here.

The Forbidden City, as home of the Imperial family for over 500 years, is obviously an extravagant complex. My only exposure to the reality of the City, outside of the realms of myth and legend, has been The Last Emperor - a cinematic adaptation of the story of the last of the imperial line during the rise of the Cultural Revolution and Communism. The film used the Forbidden City, in part, for many of the scenes, so I had some idea of what to expect - massive squares, pagodas, big red doors, gilding everywhere - and my mental image wasn't far off. As we swept through the external courtyards towards the first and most public square, everything seemed to fit; there were even big red doors. 

But as we continued northward, two things struck me as strange. First, the noise. Or rather the silence. The massive distances involved here mean that almost all of Beijing's clattering life sounds disappear, save for the occasional and annoyingly persistent car horn. Secondly, the design of the place creates an unusual spatial effect. Although the scale of the buildings within the compound is surprisingly low, the distance between them means that it's almost impossible to get a sense of anything outside of the City Walls. Combined with the absence of external noise, it would be easy to convince yourself that nothing exists at all outside of the Forbidden City , at least nothing of consequence. Although I'm sure that this deliberate architectural technique has been used throughout history to impress allies and intimidate enemies, I ended up thinking what it would be like growing up here, as many members of the royalty would spend their entire lives within the City. Despite to obvious luxury, it must've been a very isolating experience, making the world outside the Walls seem alien and frightening whilst the world within, with passing years, must have felt very small. 

After we'd concluded our tour, Kevin offered to take us on the Hutong/tea-tasting tour (again), so Kate and I took our leave and visited the park just behind the Forbidden City. It's small, but dominated by a large hill, topped with the inevitable pagoda. After a pretty hour or so, we decided to get back to the Metro by walking the perimeter of the City, a pretty significant undertaking as we discovered. Eventually, and thankfully just before I needed a knee replacement, we staggered onto the Metro with just enough time to do some quick shopping (clothes and gifts for Kate, essential train food and sustenance for me) before we made our way to the train that would take us to almost 3,500m above sea level.

This train ride should last around 48 hours so my next entry will be from Tibet.